[messaging] key validation rules for today
tom at ritter.vg
Mon Sep 8 17:17:34 PDT 2014
Hey elijah, this is cool. I really like the way you broke down
categories and gave them names. Some thoughts:
As you note, *-endorsement really falls down to *-trust if the
infrastructure is not set up to allow Bob to audit. But *-trust can
be (manually) upgraded to *-endorsement if one keeps logs. If I record
the TLS session between me and provider (and all the keys and such) I
can show that as proof that either a) the provider had a rogue
certificate issued for them or B) they lied. A service can still
claim they/someone were hacked, whether it's a CA that led to a key
lookup MITM or the infrastructure behind their endorsement key.
If you're going to enumerate nuances of key authenticity, I think
there's more. Some nuances that, to me, upgrade the authenticity of a
- If I receive the key over an anonymous channel vs a bound channel.
(e.g. Tor vs Internet)
- If I receive the key over multiple Internet connections (Cellular &
- If I receive a signed response from the user, using that key
- If I receive a signed response from the user, using that key, from
a different provider (e.g. if I get an email from your riseup.net and
leap.se accounts on the same key using UIDs)
- In the grand unified communication context: if I receive the same
key over another medium, e.g. OTR & Email
- If I receive the same key from a user when they're on different
devices. (Of course, this is actually near-impossible to prove, so it
can't count for much.)
So I envision keys gaining trust over time. Key Managers improve trust
in keys by collecting endorsements, and tracking use. The more use in
the more contexts, the more trusted a key is. An 'advanced' tab gives
a number of details, like "This key is trusted because it's been
endorsed by <N> independent endorsers, has been in use for <Y> months,
and has been seen in <Z> independent contexts."
Now let me click on a key, and send it to Carol. Bundle up the <N>
endorsements, make a statement about <Y> and <Z>. Now I'm an
endorser. And we have the Web of Trust back ;)
On 8 September 2014 01:50, elijah <elijah at riseup.net> wrote:
> The threads here on key validation have been quite productive, but many
> of the new email projects have need for some actual rules we can
> implement in the here and now . Most of these projects plan to
> implement some form of TOFU, but there are many ways this could be done
> and many ways this could transition to better key validation in the future.
> Here is a draft text for some basic rules to navigate this transition.
> That link is live editable. Please comment, edit, deplore, or applaud as
> you see fit. The full text is also included below for your convenience.
>  https://github.com/OpenTechFund/secure-email
> ---- begin ----
> Transitional rules for automated key validation
> Although many interesting key validation infrastructure schemes have
> been recently proposed, it is not at all clear what someone writing
> secure email software today should do. In particular, most of the new
> opportunistic encrypted email projects have proposed starting with some
> sort of Trust On First Use, but there are many ways to implement TOFU
> and many ways TOFU can interact with whatever more advanced schemes are
> adopted in the future.
> This document attempts to specify generic rules for automatic key
> management that can form a basis for proper TOFU and to transition from
> TOFU to more advanced forms of key validation. In particular, the rules
> try to define when a user agent should use one public key over another.
> These rules are agnostic concerning what form these future systems of
> key validation take.
> For systems that enforce a single channel for discovery and validation,
> these rules are not useful. This document is only useful for the messy
> situation we find ourselves in at the present time: there is a large gap
> between what systems should do now in order to be immediately useful in
> the current OpenPGP ecosystem and what should be done in the future.
> This document is written from the point of view of Alice, a user who
> wants to send an encrypted email to Bob, although she does not yet have
> his public key.
> We assume:
> * The goal is to automate the process of binding an email address to a
> public key (we don't care about real identities).
> * Alice knows Bob's email address, but not his public key.
> * Alice might be initiating contact with Bob, or he might be initiating
> contact with her.
> * Bob might use an email provider that facilitates key discovery and/or
> validation in some way, or he might not.
> Unless otherwise specified, "key" in this text always means "public key".
> * key manager: The key manager is a trusted user agent that is
> responsible for storing a database of all the keys for the user,
> updating these keys, and auditing the endorsements of the user's own
> keys. Typically, the key manager will run on the user's device, but
> might be running on any device the user chooses to trust.
> * key directory: An online service that stores public keys and allows
> clients to search for keys by address or fingerprint. A key directory
> does not make any assertions regarding the validity of an address + key
> binding. Existing OpenPGP keyservers are a type of key directory in this
> context, but several of the key validation proposals include new
> protocols for key directories.
> * key discovery: The act of encountering a new key, either inline the
> message, via URL, or via a key directory.
> * key validation level: the level of confidence the key manager has that
> we have the right key for a particular address. For automatic key
> management, we don't say that a key is ever "trusted" unless the user
> has manually verified the fingerprint.
> * key registration: the key has been stored by the key manager, and
> assigned a validation level. The user agent always uses registered keys.
> This is analogous to adding a key to a user's keyring, although
> implementations may differ.
> * key endorser: A key endorser is an organization that makes assertions
> regarding the binding of username at domain address to public key,
> typically by signing public keys. When supported, all such endorsement
> signatures must apply only to the uid corresponding to the address being
> * binding information: evidence that the key manager uses to make an
> educated guess regarding what key to associate with what email address.
> This information could come from the headers in an email, a DNS lookup,
> a key endorser, etc.
> * verified key transition: A process where a key owner generates a new
> public/private key pair and signs the new key with a prior key. Someone
> verifying this new key then must check to see if there is a signature on
> the new key from a key previously validated for that particular email
> address. In effect, "verified key transition" is a process where
> verifiers treat all keys as name-constrained signing authorities, with
> the ability to sign any new key matching the same email address. In the
> case of a system that supports signing particular uids, like OpenPGP,
> the signatures for key transition must apply only to the relevant uid.
> * endorsement key: The public/private key pair that a service provider
> or third party endorser uses to sign user keys.
> Key manager rules
> (1) first contact: When a new key is first discovered for a particular
> address, the key the highest validation level is registered.
> (2) regular refresh: All keys are regularly refreshed to check for
> modified expirations, or new subkeys, or new keys signed by old keys
> (precisely how updates work is out of scope of this document).
> (3) key replacement: A registered key MUST be replaced by a new key in
> one of the following situations, and ONLY these situations:
> (a) verified key transitions (when the new key is signed by the
> registered key for same address).
> (b) If the user manually verifies the fingerprint of the new key.
> (c) If the registered key is expired or revoked and the new key is
> of equal or higher validation level.
> (d) If the registered key has never been successfully used and the
> new key has a higher validation level.
> Previously registered keys must be retained by the key manager, for the
> purpose of signature authentication. These old keys are never used for
> sending messages, however. Keys older than X may be forgotten.
> A public key for Bob is considered "successfully used" by Alice if and
> only if Alice has both sent a message encrypted to the key and received
> a message signed by that key.
> In practice, a key manager likely will implement rule 1 by trying every
> possible validation and discovery method it supports, from highest level
> to lowest, until it first gets a key and then it will stop.
> Validation levels
> Listed from lowest to highest validation level.
> 1. weak-chain
> Bob's key is obtained by Alice from a non-auditable source via a weak
> chain. By weak chain, we mean that the chain of custody for "binding
> information" is broken. In other words, somewhere a long the way, the
> binding information was transmitted over a connection that was not
> This form of key validation is very weak, and should either be forbidden
> by the key manager or phased out as soon as practical.
> Alice initiates key discovery because she wants to send an email to Bob.
> Alice queries the OpenPGP keyservers for an address that matches Bob's.
> This is a weak chain because anyone can upload anything to keyservers.
> Bob initiates key discovery by sending Alice an email that is signed,
> but Bob's email provider does not support DKIM. Alice takes the
> fingerprint from the signature and queries the OpenPGP keyservers to
> discover the key. This is a weak chain because there is nothing to stop
> anyone from sending an email that impersonates Bob with a fake "From"
> header and fake signature.
> 2. provider-trust
> Alice obtains binding information for Bob's key from Bob's service
> provider, via a non-auditable source over a strong chain. By strong
> chain, we mean that every connection in the chain of custody for
> "binding information" from Bob's provider to Alice is authenticated.
> To subvert "provider-trust" validation, an attacker must compromise
> Bob's service provider or a certificate authority (or parent zones when
> using DNSSEC), but it also places a high degree of trust on service
> providers and CAs.
> Bob initiates key discovery by sending Alice an email that is signed by
> Bob, and there is a valid DKIM signature from the provider for the
> "From" header. Alice takes the fingerprint from the signature and
> queries the OpenPGP keyservers to discover the key. This is
> "provider-trust" because the DKIM signature binds the sender address to
> the fingerprint of Bob's key, and presumably Bob authenticated with his
> service provider. This also assumes Alice's user agent is able to
> securely discover the DKIM public key for Bob's provider.
> Alice initiates key discovery for Bob's address, checking webfinger or
> DNS. These queries by Alice are 'provider-trust' so long as the
> webfinger request was over HTTPS (and the server presented a certificate
> authenticated by a CA known to Alice) or the DNS request used
> DANE/DNSSEC. This relies on a reasonable assumption that if a provider
> publishes keys via DNSSEC or HTTPS then the provider probably also
> required some authentication from the user when the user uploaded their
> public key.
> Bob initiates key discovery by sending Alice an email that contains an
> OpenPGP header that specifies a URL where Alice may obtain Bob's public
> key. Bob's email contains no DKIM signature, so it could have been sent
> by anyone. However, the URL is in a standard form such as
> If the "From" header matches the domain, the URL is in a standard form,
> the email address in the URL, and the HTTPS connection is authenticated,
> then Alice may consider this "provider-trust." This is because,
> regardless of who actually sent the email, what Alice sees as the sender
> matches what the provider is queried for. All these conditions are
> unlikely to be met in practice, but the example serves to illustrate the
> broader point.
> 3. provider-endorsement
> Alice is able to ask Bob's service provider for the key bound to Bob's
> email address and Bob is able to audit these endorsements. Rather than
> simple transport level authenticity, these endorsements are time stamped
> signatures of Bob's key for a particular email address. These signatures
> are made using the provider's 'endorsement key'. Alice must obtained and
> register the provider's endorsement key with validation level at
> 'provider-trust' or higher.
> An auditable endorsing provider must follow certain rules:
> * The keys a service provider endorses must be regularly audited by its
> users. Alice has no idea if Bob's key manager has actually audited Bob's
> provider, but Alice can know if the provider is written in such a way
> that the same client libraries that allow for submitting keys for
> endorsement also support auditing of these endorsements. If a key
> endorsement system is not written in this way, then Alice's key manager
> must consider it to be the same as "provider-trust" validation.
> * Neither Alice nor Bob should contact Bob's service provider directly.
> Provider endorsements should be queried through an anonymizing transport
> like Tor, or via proxies. Without this, it is easy for provider to
> prevent Bob from auditing its endorsements, and the validation level is
> the same as "provider-trust".
> With provider-endorsement, a service provider may summarily publish
> bogus keys for a user. Even if a user's key manager detects this, the
> damage may already be done. However, "provider-endorsement" is a higher
> level of validation than "provider-trust" because there is a good chance
> that the provider would get caught if they issue bogus keys, raising the
> cost for doing so.
> 4. third-party-endorsement
> Alice asks a third party key endorsing service for binding information,
> using either an email address of key fingerprint as the search term.
> This could involve asking a key endorser directly, via a proxy, or
> asking a key directory that includes endorsement information from a key
> A key endorser must follow certain rules:
> * The key endorser must be regularly audited by the key manager. Alice
> has no idea if Bob's key manager has actually audited a particular key
> endorser, but Alice can know if the key endorser is written in such a
> way that the same client libraries that allow for submitting keys for
> endorsement also support auditing of these endorsements. If a key
> endorsement system is not written in this way, then Alice's key manager
> must consider it to be the same as "provider-trust" validation.
> * The key endorser must either require verified key transitions or
> require that old keys expire before a new key is endorsed for an
> existing email address. This is to give a key manager time to prevent
> the user's service provider from obtaining endorsements for bogus keys.
> If a key endorsement system is not written in this way, Alice's key
> manager must consider it to have the same level of validation as
> 5. third-party-consensus
> This is the same as third-party endorsement, but Alice's user agent has
> queried a quorum of third party endorsers and all their endorsements for
> a particular user address agree. A variant of this could be "n-of-m"
> validation, where Alice's user agent requires 'n' endorsements from a
> set of 'm' endorsers.
> 6. historical-auditing
> This works similar to third-party-endorsement, but with better ability
> to audit key endorsements. With historical auditing, a key endorser must
> publish an append-only log of all their endorsements. Independent
> "auditor" agents can watch these logs to ensure new entries are always
> appended to old entries.
> The benefit of this approach is that an endorser is not able to
> temporarily endorse and publish a bogus key and then remove this key
> before Alice's key manager is able to check what key has been endorsed.
> The endorser could try to publish an entire bogus log in order to
> endorse a bogus key, but this is very likely to be eventually detected.
> As with other endorsement models, the endorsement key must be
> bootstrapped somehow using a validation level of "provider-trust" or
> 7. known-key
> Bob's key has been hard-coded as known by the software (mostly this just
> applies to keys belonging to established endorsers, not user keys).
> 8. fingerprint
> Alice has manually confirmed the validity of the key by inspecting the
> full fingerprint or by using a short authentication string with a
> limited time frame. For extra whimsy, fingerprint inspection should take
> the form of a poem.
> Future specification
> These are out of scope for the specific problem of key validation, but
> these are important issues that need to be addressed when transitioning
> to opportunistic encrypted email over time.
> Issuing new keys
> As these rules are written, if Alice loses her private key but still has
> access to her email account, she will not be able to send signed mail or
> receive encrypted mail until the expiration date on the key (assuming
> all the clients respect the key expiration date).
> For example, imagine Alice loses access to her private key but the key
> will not expire for another month. She can still authenticate with her
> service provider, so she can still issue new keys and have the service
> provider endorse them, or some other party endorse them. But, no valid
> client should use them yet until her lost key expires.
> Effectively, the primary key's expiratation date is the window of time
> that Alice is willing to put up with being locked out of using encrypted
> email. This window is also the same length of time that Alice has of
> detecting, by audit, a provider that is publishing bogus keys for her
> (before those keys potentially start to get used). So, if Alice wants
> high convenience, she can set this window to be short. If Alice wants
> higher security, she can set this window to be long.
> At this point, it is unclear what a good value for key expiration
> should be for users who want higher convenience and for users who want
> higher security.
> If a key expiration date is too soon, then there is a possibility that
> Alice's key manager will not have had the opportunity to extend the key
> expiration (for example, perhaps Alice is traveling and does not check
> email for several weeks). Alice can still recover, since a key can still
> have its expiration date extended after the key has expired, but this is
> still not ideal. Alice should be able to indicate that she is
> confortable with the provider always being able to issue new keys on her
> behalf. It would be impractical to set the key expiration to always be
> one day in the future. As a refinement, a future protocol should support
> a special date annonation on a public key that says "brand new keys may
> be accepted for this address after this date". If this annotation is
> present, the expiration date is then only used to determine the point in
> time after which a key should not be used, not the cutoff for accepting
> replacement keys.
> Updating keys
> For high usability, a key manager will need to frequently update keys by
> querying a key directory or the original source of the key. Every key
> validation proposal has a different mechanism for this. The important
> thing is that Alice's key manager should not make queries in a manner
> that leaks Alice's addressbook to the key directories. As one example,
> the program parcimonie will slowly update keys, one at a time, from
> traditional OpenPGP keyservers over Tor. Also, because these updates
> need to happen frequently, the key manager should have some way to first
> test to see if a key is modified before downloading the full key (using
> something like an etag).
> Sending email
> To avoid encrypted email being sent to people who no longer use OpenPGP,
> the user agent should not opportunistically encrypt outgoing mail to a
> recipient unless the recipient has positively indicated they wish to
> receive encrypted email. Such indication may include: a signed email
> message, a public key as an attachment, an OpenPGP header, a key
> published by the provider or key directory (but NOT a HKP keyserver), or
> when the user performs manual fingerprint verification.
> When Alice sends an email with an opportunistic mail user agent, the
> agent should always try to indicate that Alice prefers encrypted email.
> This could be done by signing every message, although that can raise
> security issues as well.
> Receiving email
> As alluded to above, an opportunistic mail user agent that receives a
> message from a provider that does not support DKIM signatures on the
> From header should be cautious when using the OpenPGP signature or
> OpenPGP header to discover and register the sender's public key. These
> emails are easily spoofed by anyone on the internet, causing the user
> agent to register impostor keys.
> Device keys and subkeys
> It would be highly desirable for all projects that use OpenPGP to
> support device keys. The idea is that a user might have multiple
> devices, with different keys for each device (instead of needing to
> synchronize the same private key to all their devices). How might this work?
> If Bob's master key has multiple subkeys with (E)ncryption usage for the
> uid in question, then Alice should encrypt the message to ALL those
> subkeys when sending email to Bob.
> A system using subkeys like this still requires a single master key. It
> may be desirable for a key validation protocol to allow for a single
> email address to be bound to multiple master public keys, although this
> is not supported with the current rules in this document.
> Phasing out
> Ideally, there should be some mechanism to phase out lower forms of
> validation as higher forms become more common. In particular, it would
> be good to forbid weak-chain validation entirely.
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